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Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Larger-Than-Life Facts About Texas

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

The Lone Star State boasts some the best barbeque and biggest farmlands and ranches in the United States. Since the 19th century, it has been home to presidents, movie stars, musicians, folk heroes, and famed outlaws. Here are 25 facts from deep in the heart of Texas. 

1. Texas is the second largest state [PDF]. With an area of 268,602 square miles, it's bordered by four other states, and by Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico in the South. Alaska, meanwhile, is the largest, at 663,000 square miles.

2. The word “Texas” comes from teysha, which means “friends” or “allies” in the language of the natives of East Texas. The word was used by several tribes, including the Hasinais and Caddo, before the arrival of the Spanish, and was sometimes used as a greeting. 

3. The so-called Lone Star State gets its nickname from the state flag. The lone star first appeared on the Republic of Texas’s flag in 1838. 

istock

4. The state capital was almost named Waterloo. When a commission surveyed the land in 1838, they named the territory after the famed battle. But the Republic of Texas’s congress ended up renaming the city Austin to honor founding father Stephen F. Austin. 

5. 7-Eleven got its start in Dallas in 1927 when a Southland Ice Company employee started selling eggs, milk, and bread out of one of Dallas’s ice houses. Southland founding director Joe C. Thompson Sr. saw the potential in the idea, and the chain of ice houses quickly morphed into a chain of convenience stores, initially called “Tote’m Stores,” and later renamed 7-Eleven

6. Infamous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde are buried in different graveyards in Dallas. Their crime spree was immortalized in Arthur Penn’s Oscar-winning film Bonnie and Clyde, which shot some scenes in Dallas. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

7. Over the years, Texas has flown the flags of six different nations: Spain, Mexico, France, The Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and the United States.

8. The amusement park chain Six Flags was founded in Arlington in 1961, and is named for the six flags of Texas. It was originally called Six Flags Over Texas. 

9. There may be some truth to the saying "Everything's bigger in Texas." Texas is home to the world's largest Honky Tonk (where Merle Haggard once purchased the world's largest round of drinks), votive candle, giant pilgrim head, and, of course, the world's largest Texan.

Brandi Korti, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

10. March 27, 1984, may have been the strangest weather day in Texas history. In Amarillo, the temperature was a near-freezing 35 degrees with snow on the ground, while Brownsville hit a high of 106 degrees. 

11. Bracken Cave in San Antonio is home to the world’s largest bat colony. From March through September each year, millions of Mexican free-tailed bats inhabit the cave and 1458 acres of the surrounding Texas Hill Country.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

12. The 1836 Battle of The Alamo, during which hundreds of Texan defenders were killed (including folk hero Davy Crockett), was one of the most important battles of the Texas Revolution, convincing others to join the Texas army, and inspiring the battle cry “Remember the Alamo.” The battle later became the subject of songs, books, and films—and today, the Alamo is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Texas.

13. Electronics company Texas Instruments was founded in Dallas in 1951. Probably best known for consumer electronics like calculators, the company is one of the top 20 semiconductor producers in the world. The movie True Stories (1986), set in the fictional Virgil, Texas, and directed by David Byrne of the band Talking Heads, is loosely inspired by the tech empire established by Texas Instruments.

14. Aurora, Texas, is home to a rumored alien gravesite. Some locals believe that in the 1800s, a UFO crashed in the area, and locals buried the “petite” Martian under a tree in a nearby cemetery. 

15. Sometimes called “the birthplace of Texas ranching,” the 825,000-acre King Ranch in South Texas covers more land than the entire state of Rhode Island. Established in 1853, the ranch encompasses operations as diverse as farming, cattle ranching, tourism, and even publishing. 

16. Paris, Texas, has its own 65-foot-tall Eiffel Tower. Built in 1995, it was originally billed as the “Second Largest Eiffel Tower in the Second Largest Paris.” In the years since then, fake Eiffel Tower construction in the U.S. has bumped the Texas tower down to fourth place. Still, it’s probably the only imitation Eiffel Tower in the world that sports a jaunty red cowboy hat.

17. Frequently used as a statement of Texas pride, the expression “Don’t Mess With Texas” started out as an anti-littering slogan. The phrase, which appears on T-shirts and bumper stickers throughout the state, has been a federally registered trademark of the Texas Department of Transportation since 1985. 

18. Forget Mount Rushmore, Texas has its own giant stone head—a 13-ton boulder carved into the shape of John Wayne’s face. Unlike the presidential monument in South Dakota, the John Wayne Boulder in Lubbock, Texas, sits inside the library of Lubbock Christian University.

19. Over the years, musicians and songwriters have written numerous odes to the state of Texas. Glen Campbell wrote an ode to Galveston, George Strait sang of his exes in Texas, and Waylon Jennings had a number one Billboard hit with “Luckenbach, Texas” in 1977. But the state’s most well-known ode may have come from Hollywood cowboy and Texas native Gene Autry. In 1942, the singing cowboy appeared in the film Heart of the Rio Grande where he sang “Deep In The Heart of Texas.” Since then the iconic song has been referenced in everything from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure to The Big Bang Theory.

20. Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson were college roommates at the University of Texas at Austin. The future director and the future movie star met their sophomore year and became fast friends. “I wrote a term paper for Owen,” Anderson told Texas Monthly in 1998. “Although that wasn’t exactly a collaborative effort.” The two went on to actually collaborate on Bottle Rocket (1996), Anderson’s first feature film, and have worked together numerous times since then.

21. The deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States occurred in Galveston on September 8, 1900, when a Category 4 hurricane hit the island city. Though residents knew a storm was coming, forecasters downplayed its severity and few evacuated, and an estimated 6000 people died. 

22. Drawing on the etymology of its name, the state motto of Texas is “Friendship.”

23. Black’s BBQ in Lockhart is the oldest family-owned BBQ restaurant in Texas. Owned and operated by the Black family since 1932, the restaurant is best known for its 80-year-old sausage recipe. Other beloved long-running Texas BBQ joints include Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, which opened in 1949 and is known for its beef brisket, and Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse in Elgin, which started as a sausage company in 1949. (PSA: You can order their sausages from anywhere in the United States).

Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

24. Texas was once an independent nation. Called the Republic of Texas, it was its own country from 1836 through 1845, when it agreed to be part of the United States. During that time, Sam Houston (for whom Houston, Texas, is named) was elected president twice, in 1836 and 1841. 

25. Lyndon B. Johnson and Dwight D. Eisenhower were both born in Texas. (Though both held government positions in Texas, George Bush and George W. Bush were born in Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively.) The LBJ Presidential Library is located in Austin. 

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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